During my lunch break on Friday, December 14, 2012, I was in my elementary school’s office waiting to make photocopies to send home with my kindergarten students. I started mindlessly scrolling Facebook but stopped short when I read a post about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in my home state of Connecticut. Though I had just completed a course as a Teaching Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education about how to support children experiencing trauma, I felt at a complete loss for how to proceed. In just a few moments, I would need to pick my students up from lunch and continue teaching for the rest of the day as if I had not just learned the unthinkable happened at an elementary school earlier that day. I worried about what I would do if I had to protect them and what I would say if they came to school the next day talking about it. David

Back in 1990, an inmate escaped from the local prison near where I was teaching first grade. We had no lockdown procedures in place; the principal announced on the intercom that we were to take cover and I quickly ushered six-year-olds into the coat closets and whispered that we were playing hide and seek with the principal and to stay silent. I quickly barricaded desks in front of the classroom door and then laid down in front of the closets. Everything miraculously resolved itself with no casualties—at least not physically. But what about emotionally? I can only imagine the hugs, tears, and questions in the homes of the over 500 families that had children enrolled in the school, not to mention the educators and their families. What I recall just as vividly is not feeling prepared when my students bombarded me with questions the following day. Lisa

Children are being exposed to traumatic events at an alarming rate. Educators play an important role in helping them feel safe and allowing them to express their feelings. In this article, we provide strategies for navigating conversations with young children, keeping in mind that the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (2020) cautions that the number of details that children will find useful will depend on their age.

After the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, we generated a list of resources and suggestions for our early childhood colleagues. What we realized when we came together to discuss how to talk about the unimaginable with young children were two critically important things. First, being in situations in which teachers need to have conversations about violence with young children is incredibly common. We both had extremely detailed memories from being early childhood teachers in which we had to respond to our students’ trauma, their fears, or something terrible they had heard on the news or seen in their communities—not just once, but many times throughout our teaching careers. Second, we realized from our past teaching experiences that it is common for teachers to feel unprepared to have these conversations with young children. After a trauma, children often take cues from their caregivers on how to respond and look to them for support. If we are unprepared, we may avoid discussing the event.

For example, Dave was asked by his administrators to host a meeting before school the Monday after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, to help the more than 60 teachers and administrators feel more prepared to respond if students had questions or were talking about the shooting. It is important to create a classroom environment that is safe, nurturing, and responsive to the needs of children who have been exposed to traumatic events (Berson & Baggerly, 2012).

With these two realizations in mind, we felt it would be helpful to share what we have learned about having these difficult conversations with children. The ten tips provided below are intended to be a place to start if you find yourself in a situation in which you need to talk with your students about violence. These tips are based on our own experiences, research, and resources we have utilized as teachers and teacher educators. Though we are not psychologists, we are teacher educators with expertise in early childhood, mindfulness, and trauma-informed education. It is important to note that these tips are intentionally general, in order to provide broader utility to you and your students. We hope what we share is helpful, should you find yourself in a situation in which you need to take the lead on conversations about violence with young children.

Tip 1: If your students bring it up, you need to address it.

Fred Rogers’ mother used to say to him, “If it is mentionable, it is manageable,” and we feel there is no better way to make this point clear. If a child comes to you and tells you about something that is scaring them—such as gun violence—it is incredibly important that you make space for them to be heard. If you cannot talk about it right then, you could say, “I can tell you really need to talk about this and what you are saying is important to me. Give me one moment to help some of our friends get settled and then I will be right back.” This teaches them that it is okay to talk about these things with you, rather than keep them bottled inside.

Tip 2: Listen first, then correct misinformation. 

If a child comes to you and starts talking about violence they heard about on the news or in their communities, make the space for them to talk about it. You can start by saying, “Can you tell me what you heard?” This gives the child the opportunity to get the weight of the information off their chest, and allows you to have a better understanding of what they know and what they do not know. Sometimes, a child’s imagination can exacerbate what they have heard, making it feel even more frightening than the reality of what happened. For example, if a young child saw news reels on repeat about a school shooting, they may believe that each time they saw it meant it was happening over and over again, so we recommend taking the opportunity to correct any misinformation they may have.

Tip 3: Share back only factual and relevant information.

Young children do not need to be made aware of the graphic details of violence, but they do need clear, factual information as is appropriate, in order to feel they have some mastery over what happened. In the case of the school shooting in Uvalde, we recommend that teachers say something like this: “There was a man whose brain was sick who went into a school and he had a gun. He shot people with the gun and many of them died—some were children and some were teachers. The man with the gun also died.” In this way, you can communicate what happened accurately without supplying additional frightening imagery to children who are already feeling scared.

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Tip 4: Talk about feelings. 

Children may need support in identifying and naming feelings associated with violence and trauma. Siegel & Bryson (2012), authors of “The Whole Brain Child,” coined the phrase “name it to tame it.” The idea is to help children name the overwhelming emotion through words. This has a “taming” effect, as the child feels heard, understood, and confident that their experience in the world is valued by the people that mean the most to them. As teachers, we know that big feelings can be made less overwhelming when given a name, and when teachers show young children ways to manage those feelings. Sharing with your students that hearing about violence makes you sad and angry teaches them it is okay for them to feel sad and angry, too.

Tip 5: Conclude the conversation by bringing it back to safety. 

At this point in the conversation, you have helped the child(ren) understand what happened in a developmentally appropriate way, and you have helped them understand and validate their feelings. The final step we recommend is to conclude the conversation with a discussion of safety, specifically the things you do every day as their teacher to keep them safe. Because feelings of trauma can make us feel unsafe, this is particularly important. Though you and your school’s safety protocols will vary widely depending on your context, we offer this as a place to start as you bring the conversation back to safety: “Here are all the things we do to keep you safe here (share your school safety plans). People need a special key to get into the building and our classroom, our classroom door is made of strong metal, and all the grownups here are responsible for keeping you safe.”

Tip 6: Maintain routines as much as possible.

By their very nature, trauma and violence are typically unpredictable. Teachers can counteract this unpredictability in their classrooms by having consistent, predictable classroom routines. If you have ever deviated from a routine in your classroom, we imagine your students noticed and reacted immediately. Helping children know what to expect—and what is expected of them—is a simple way teachers can make their classrooms feel safe. For example, you could post the schedule for the following day at the end of the day, so children leave school knowing what to expect when they return the next morning.

Tip 7: Communicating with caregivers. 

We highly recommend that you reach out to your students’ caregivers as soon as possible when children have heard about violence in schools, communities, or any other context. Adults often underestimate young children’s abilities to overhear conversations they are having or may assume their children are not hearing, watching, or understanding whatever news is playing on the TV or radio at home. As teachers, we know that young children overhear everything, and it is important to help caregivers understand that, too. Encourage families to turn off the news and radio and to abstain from conversations about violence while their children are within earshot. It is impossible to know what they will and will not hear or see, so doing what they can to minimize what their children hear or see related to violence is important.

Tip 8: Supporting caregivers. 

In addition to communicating with parents, teachers may often find themselves in situations where parents are asking for additional support. As we wrote at the onset of this article, many adults—including the most experienced teachers—may feel unprepared to talk with young children about violence. We recommend that you share with parents the tips from this article to ensure consistency for your students (i.e., their children) between the home and school.

Tip 9: Advocacy and victim support. 

In some instances, the children in your classroom may feel compelled to do something to take a stand against violence or in support of victims of violence. Depending on your context, it may be appropriate to share with families the contact information of non-profits aimed at minimizing violence for volunteer or donation opportunities, or to connect families with local and state political leaders to whom they can advocate for policies against violence. Additionally, some children may want to write letters, create art, or demonstrate their support for victims and survivors. We recommend reaching out to impacted communities beforehand, to ensure these demonstrations of support are welcome, but making space for your students to represent their feelings and sympathy for others in any mode—regardless of whether you send it directly to the impacted people or community—should always be encouraged.

Tip 10: Prepare for children with varying levels of information. 

One of the most challenging aspects of having these conversations with children is the varying levels of information they may have about the violence—some may know a great deal, and some may not have heard anything. Further, each child in your classroom will vary in terms of their individual temperament and resilience; how news of violence impacts them will be different. We recommend that teachers and parents encourage the children that are talking about violence to seek out adults rather than peers when they feel compelled to talk about it. We recommend saying something like, “Your friends may not know about what happened, and their families may want to be the ones who talk to them about it. You can talk to me or your family any time if you’re feeling nervous at school, if you have questions, or if you just want to talk about it more.”

Concluding Thoughts

It is our sincerest hope that some of what we have shared here will be supportive to you, your students, and their families. Though there is no standard way to have conversations about violence with children, our experiences as early childhood teachers and teacher educators have taught us that sometimes just having a place to start is enough; we hope this may serve as that imperfect starting place for you. As teachers, we are often children’s “first responders” when it comes to worries, fears, and questions. Therefore, the first strategy is to manage our own anxiety and grief before talking with children. Baggerly & Exum (2008) encourage teachers to do some mindful breathing, write in a journal, or talk to a friend to better prepare ourselves. It is important that children sense that teachers are capable and prepared to meet their needs. 

We also want to remind you that you are not alone. We came together to write this article because of our realization that most teachers will find themselves in situations in which they will need to talk with children about violence. We urge you to take care of yourselves and to lean on your colleagues and loved ones for support, when faced with these challenges as teachers. 

References

Baggerly, J.N. and Exum, H. (2008). Counseling children after natural disasters: Guidance for family therapists. American Journal of Family Therapy, 36(1), 79-93.

Berson, I.R. and Baggerly, J. (2012). Building resilience to trauma: Creating a safe and supportive early childhood classroom. Childhood Education, 85(6), 375-379. doi.org/10.1080/00094056.2009.10521404

National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. (2020). Talking to children about terrorist attacks and school and community shootings in the news. Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. schoolcrisiscenter.org

Siegel, D.J. and Bryson, T.P. (2012). The whole-brain child. Random House.

David P. Barry, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of early childhood education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Previously, he taught kindergarten in the Boston Public Schools for 10 years and was a teaching fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for five years. His research interests and teaching commitments center on early childhood teachers' wellbeing.

Lisa J. Lucas, Ed.D., has over 30 years of experience in education, as a teacher, instructional coach, administrator, consultant, and now a professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. She researches and develops practical self-care and stress reduction strategies for educators. She is the author of "Practicing Presence: Simple Self-Care Strategies for Teachers" published by Stenhouse Publishers.

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